In the 1950s acting roles for African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans were few and far between. When roles were offered they tended to be for supporting players and fit negative stereotypes in which the characters where lazy, talked differently, dressed differently, or were domestic servants.
In the 1960s, minority actors were finally beginning to take center stage in Hollywood. In the movies, Sidney Poitier would star in Lillies of the Field (1963), The Heat of the Night (1967), To Sir with Love (1967) and Guess Who is Coming to Dinner (1967). On the small screen, George Takei, Bruce Lee, Diahann Carroll, Clarence Williams III, and Nichelle Nichols made their mark in primetime TV.
Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek (1966-1969) marked the first time American television viewers got to see an African-American female character that wasn’t a stereotype. Lieutenant Uhura was smart, beautiful, and fourth in command of the USS Enterprise. But after the first season, Nichols decided it was time to move on. She had received a lot of public attention for her role on the show and decided it was the right time to pursue her Broadway dreams.
This is one of those stories in which history and popular culture collide. Nichelle Nichols begins the famous story:
“‘On Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan. And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King’” (Ohlheiser, 2015).
Dr. King tells Nichols he is a Trekkie and that Star Trek was the only show he let his children stay up late to watch. Nichelle Nichols immediately breaks the news that she is leaving the show because she was offered a part on Broadway. Dr. King argues that she could not possibly leave because the world was finally seeing black people on television, not as servants but as beautiful, intelligent people journeying to the stars.
In Pioneers of Television, “Breaking Barriers” Nichols says, “At that moment, the world tilted for me” and “That’s all I could think of, everything that Dr. King said — ‘The world would see us for the first time as we should be seen’ “. Lieutenant Uhura stayed on the USS Enterprise (Boettcher, 2014).
Ohlheiser, A. (2015, July 31). How Martin Luther King Jr. convinced ‘Star Trek’s’ Lt. Uhura to stay on the show. Retrieved from
Boettcher, S. (Director). (2014, April 29). Breaking Barriers [Television series episode]. In Pioneers in Television. Arlington, Virginia: PBS.
Written Assignment Instructions:
Select: two television shows (one from the 1950s and another from the 1960s) from the lists below.
1950s: Amos and Andy, The Cisco Kid, Beulah, and The Lone Ranger
1960s: The Green Hornet, Star Trek, Julia, and Mod Squad
Research your shows, focusing on the minority characters. Look for answers to the following questions:
- What is the background of this show? What years was the show on TV?
- Focusing on Civil Rights, what social issues and historical events were taking place at the time the show was being broadcast?
- Focusing on Civil Rights, how do you see specific characters or elements from specific episodes fitting in with these important events and issues of the time? How are they historical artifacts (a reflection of the social, political, and cultural current events) of the Civil Rights Movement?
- How do you think these specific characters helped to shape the popular perceptions of minorities of the time? Please be specific.
Watch at least one full episode each of your TV shows (using YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or other sources) and be sure to include this episode in your works cited list.
Write an essay using the information you gathered from answering the above questions. Your thesis for this essay should attempt to answer these questions: Given the information you gathered about the background and cultural history on both television shows; explain their cultural relevance of each as they fit into the Civil Rights Movement. How are they historical artifacts of the Civil Rights Movement? How do you think each show and/or specific characters helped to shape popular perceptions of minorities at the time? Please be specific.
This essay should be at least 2 full pages not including heading and reference page. Paper should be in APA format, in-text citations should be reference. Please use credible sources such as Google Scholar or utilizing library resources. Please do not forget to cite your sources from YouTube, Netflix, etc.
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